June 26, 2006

Uganda Says Development Can Protect Great Apes

ENTEBBE, Uganda -- Better living standards for poor local communities helps to avoid human-animal conflicts and is the best way to protect Africa's endangered Great Apes, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni said on Monday.

Opening the Congress of the International Primatological Society -- the first to be held in a country hosting Great Apes -- Museveni said conservation efforts would never work if local communities were not developed at the same time.

"The biggest threat to the ecosystems where these animals live is humans engaged in primitive agriculture," he told more than 700 participants gathered at a hotel by Lake Victoria.

The term Great Apes is generally used to refer to gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzees and bonobos.

Uganda is home to 18 primate species, including 5,000 chimpanzees and more than 300 mountain gorillas in the remote jungle peaks bordering Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.

But efforts to protect them, and maximize earnings from tourists, have been threatened by villagers encroaching on reserves and national parks.

"These people should shift to industry and services, and leave agriculture to more efficient farmers who do not have to compete for land with conservation efforts," Museveni said.

He added that some 28 billion cubic meters of firewood was burned each year in the landlocked east African country.

"How can you have conservation next to such destruction?" he asked. "We need electricity from clean sources instead."

Museveni drew disapproving murmurs from the crowd when he said he backed human medical tests on chimpanzees. But he was still hailed by primates expert Jane Goodall as the first head of state to have addressed one of the society's meetings.

"We have compromised the future of our youth, the future of the Great Apes, other primates and our whole planet," she said. "We need support and attention at the highest level."